A string walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a Singapore Sling. The bartender regards him with a scornful eye and says, “We don’t serve strings here!” Downtrodden but resilient, the string leaves the bar with a theory of how to get back in. (Lets call it the String Theory) He messes up his hair, ties himself up and walks right back in. The string orders another Singapore Sling. The bartender leers at him and says, “Aren’t you that string that was in here just a second ago?”
“Nope,” the string says, “I’m a frayed knot.”
This tall tale illustrates the confounding power of homonyms. Add in a little accent variance, and homonyms become a minefield of cross cultural confusion. Homonyms are the prime numbers of the English language, defying all rules and expectations. They are a playhouse for purveyors of fine puns and wacky word wonder.
Here’s a quirky set of homonyms. The Quran refers to spirits as “jinns”. Islamic purgatory is called “barzakh”, surprisingly not yet taken on the registry of bar names. The highest of the jinns is the Prince of Darkness, which has certainly been my experience of “gin”.
The word religion itself has become a homonym. I hear different people use the word and mean completely different things by it. Some refer to a set of beliefs in supernatural acts and an afterlife. Some mean shared language and traditions. The same is true for the word spiritual. Some refer to a realm or dimension beyond the physical. Some mean a sense of oneness with all things.
Since launching SBNR.org a handful of people have said to me, “I’m religious but not spiritual.” A few have said “I’m neither spiritual nor religious.” Some people are tied up in knots trying to work out the difference between religion and spirituality.
The most common response has been a visceral connection with the phrase Spiritual but not Religious. Many people seem to resonate with the distinctions. While each religion uses particular language and specific traditions that mediate an experience of the holy, spirituality implies a direct personal experience (or understanding) of life’s universal truths.
The boundaries of religion are generally set for you. You set your own spiritual agenda. Religion usually happens in particular places. Spirituality happens anywhere and everywhere. Where religion urges you to be holy, spirituality urges you to live wholly. If religion has a sense of tribal belonging, spirituality refuses no person.
Maybe this is the most important distinction. Spirituality incorporates everyone, including the religious. Spirituality is the lobby that all are welcome in, rather than being an elite penthouse that only the most enlightened can afford.
Any engagement with life is spiritual; philosophy seeking the depths of life, science exploring the edges of knowledge, children dwelling in the power of now, teenagers pushing at the edge of identity, lovers marveling at the wonder of connection, parents pondering the source of life, activists practicing a passion for justice, artists touching creative inspiration, and so much more. These are all spiritual endeavors according to common usage of the word spirituality.
Joseph Campbell made this point in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He tells of an ancient Hindu holy man who propped his feet on a sacred symbol by the Ganges. A Sikh passing by asked him how he dared to profane the religious symbol. “Good sir,” he replied, “I am sorry; but will you kindly take my feet and place them where there is no such sacred symbol.” The offended Sikh roughly grasped the man’s ankles and moved his feet first to the right, then to the left, but — to his amazement — in every place that the feet touched, a new symbol sprang from the ground. Finally he understood. There is no place that is not holy.
Sacred and profane are artificial distinctions, and a growing number of people don’t need religion to mediate an experience of that which is greater than all and yet present in each.
As Alice Walker wrote- “You don’t need organized religion to connect with the universe. Often a church is the only place you can go to find peace and quiet… But it shouldn’t be confused with connecting with one’s spirit.”
Life, in every moment and in every connection, is full of wonder and doesn’t need to be limited to special times and places. Having hiked many trails that I felt were holy, I arrive full circle at a realization that all trails are holy and all moments are precious.
I learn the same lesson as the Sikh, that my life journey is to seek a heightened experience of life; within as self awareness and responsibility, between as intimate relatedness and justice, and beyond as awe and wonder. You can have a direct experience of all that is good and true and beautiful. You neither need gin nor do you need to be a jinn to be spiritual. You can do it right now. You have everything you need.
What is spirituality for you? What experiences draw you deeper into life?